The King’s Daughter
by Tala Bar
Table of Contents|
Chapter 8 appeared
in issue 174.
Chapter Nine: Death on the Gilbo’a
part 1 of 2
Mikhal’s life is a story of pagan worship and sacrifice, of love, wars, kingship and death. She is the daughter of the Biblical king Saul; her mother is Ahino’am, a priestess of the goddess Ashtoret. Born to a king, Mikhal is married to the future king David. She is separated from him and joined to another man, to whom she bears a child. She is then torn from her family and carried away by a criminal brother. At last she is brought back to her former husband, king David, in Jerusalem.
Mikhal thus lives out her life in the vortex of social, political and religious upheavals in the days of the first kings of Israel.
Twice in my life I met Sibyls, and their impression on me was so great that I have no reason to regard them as false prophets, or not to take their prophecies seriously, as Yhwh worshipers do. My first meeting occurred when I accompanied Sha’ul to the temple of The Three Asses, a visit that left me both stunned and excited. The second meeting, less exciting but more impressive in its fateful outcome, occurred at the little temple in Galim, in rather mysterious circumstances.
It was the time when Palti and I had established man and wife relationship, but before I had borne my son. I had found deep, peaceful happiness, which affected my whole being and even showed in my face; for the first time in my life I looked pretty, my body and face filled up, my eyes glowed and an almost constant smile hovered on my parted lips.
* * *
Thoughts about the world outside Galim were far from my mind. I knew very little about Sha’ul chasing David, and I heard nothing about his battle against the Philistines on the Gilbo’a. I suppose Palti knew much more than I did, hiding his knowledge so as not to disturb my peace. I did not even know what and where the Gilbo’a was — a range of mountains lying along the southern border of the Valley of Yizre’el, north of the land of Efrayim; Ahino’am’s birthplace in the town of Shunem lay at a short distance from it.
My very meeting with the Sibyl in Galim was extraordinary. Prophetesses do not usually leave the temple they belong to to travel abroad; but that particular necromancer (I never heard her name; it was typical of these Sybils to ignore their personal identity once they joined the profession), had wandered more than usual.
In small settlements like Galim, temples were usually small and temporary. No permanent divine representatives served in such settlements, only those who wandered from place to place for the benefit of people of their faith who were not able to reach more permanent establishments; these could be found only in the neighborhood of large villages and towns.
In Shiloh, for instance, there was a permanent House of Yhwh with its own priests and seers, and in Giv’on there was a grand worship-place for Ashtoret; the Naaman temple near Naama served a large inhabited area rather than one particular settlement. But in a small place like the Rama, there was only a platform where Shemu’el, on his occasional visits, used to conduct the ritual of Yhwh; that same platform was used at other times for the rites of Ashtoret.
In small places, it was usual for priests of all religions to use the same temple or platform alternatively. The statues — images of Ashtoret, Baal, or El — were kept in a room attached to the worship place used as a kind of inn for the divinities, each in its own corner not disturbing its neighbors; they were taken out for each particular cult to appear on the platform. Yhwh, of course, had no image, only a sacred chest containing various writings; when it was his turn on the dais, no images were taken out.
Like all branches of Maakha’s house, Palti’s family was also mixed. When my husband was born, his parents called him Palti’el, because they worshipped the Bull god, who sometimes acted as Ashtoret’s consort. When he grew up, Palti, preferring to serve Yhwh, omitted the part of El from his name. But he never prevented his late wife from worshipping Ashtoret.
Following Maakha’s command, I married Palti in the name of Ashtoret, but according to his wish we also swore faithfulness in front of Yhwh. I admit that the Spirit of the Desert does not speak to me; it is the spirit of Ashtoret that hovers around and inside me. She is my mother, grandmother and sister; the little image in my lap I regard as a bosom friend and a confidante. However, since the sacrifice of my brother Malkishua, I have avoided taking part in ritual of any kind.
* * *
I remember the day when that mysterious figure appeared at Galim, creating an unusual excitement and confusion. It was a bright spring day, and I put aside the loom and cloth and went out into the village square. I was thinking of going out to the fields, perhaps to watch or even aid at the birth of the kids. As a rule, Palti would not let me do the kind of jobs which seemed to him beneath the dignity of the Lady of the Village, but sometimes I would slip through his supervision, as I used to do as a child.
That time, I did not reach the outskirts of the village. As soon as I left the house I noticed people gathering in pairs or in small groups — housemaids, workers of the yard and farm — whispering together. I connected that behavior with rumors that used to seep from time to time from the outside world into our peaceful lives, stirring the minds just because they were rare.
Galim was not situated on the main route of messengers, and fragments of messages would reach us only occasionally; sometimes these were rumors of Sha’ul’s chasing David, or the endless wars against the Philistines. I had been used to news of wars from childhood, and they did not interest me. With the distance, I had become sensitive for both the fates of Sha’ul and David — even when the fever of my infatuation with David had sunk beneath the warm blanket of Palti’s constant love.
But I did not like this conferring in the street, and I called out to Tzilla, who was among these people, to come to me. “I see you are taking leave from your work,” I said with pretence of coldness.
“My Lady,” she cried, blushing — she always liked to be regarded as hard working; “My Lady, someone has got into the temple at night.”
“’Someone’? What do you mean?”
“Someone black, mysterious, we haven’t seen anyone like her before.”
“What do you mean, ‘black’?”
“She is all dressed in black! We don’t know priestesses dressed in black.”
An Oracle priestess! I thought; what is she doing here, outside her temple? ”Who saw her if she arrived at night?” I asked, curious against my will, “Who accompanied her?”
“She came alone, all wrapped in black, a black vail on her face. The girls saw her in the morning, when they came to clean the temple.”
“Who opened the temple door for her at night? I thought it’s usually kept locked.”
“My Lady,” the maid cried, full of excitement, “no one opened the door for her! She entered through the locked door!” The girl had gone white at the thought.
“Nonsense!” I made light of her words: “they must have forgotten to lock it.”
“No, they found the door locked this morning, on the outside.”
I did not know what to think of it. “Does the Master know?” I asked instead of continuing that useless conversation.
“The maids had told the farm manager, and he went to speak to the Master.” I reflected.
“And what was she doing there, when the girls went in this morning?”
“She was kneeling in front of Ashtoret’s image. They also said that smoke was rising from the altar in the courtyard without anything burning on it!”
That was enough for me. The rest, I thought, I shall hear from Palti. Sending the girl back to the house, I spent some time meditating on my husband and his attitude to things. Palti’s approach to life was direct and rational; he did not believe in supernatural phenomena, nor in people who had supernatural powers. In his opinion, every action and occurrence in life had a simple, straightforward explanation; I was sure he would find such an answer even to the seeming fact that a woman entered a temple through a locked door. Palti simply would not trouble himself with a question, which seemed to him meaningless.
* * *
I found my husband talking to the workers preparing the tools for the harvest. He was rather surprised to see me, but happy for it just the same. “Mikhal!” Even before asking the purpose of my coming, he stretched his arm to encircle my waist.
“Have you heard the latest news?” I asked, leaning my head on his shoulder.
“News?” He was surprised. “What news are you talking about?”
“But I thought you had talked to her?” I got away from his embrace in order to look at his face.
“With whom?” He asked, and I realized he had actually forgotten.
“With the woman in the temple,” I reminded him.
“Ah, that one.” His face darkened. I did not understand his expression.
“Have you talked to her?” I repeated my question, feeling a little uncomfortable to see his reaction.
“We exchanged a word or two. Actually, she wants only to talk to you.” He turned his face away from me, to answer some question coming from the workers.
“With me? What for?”
“I don’t know, Mikhal,” he said softly, turning back to me, looking in my eyes. “We’ll go to the temple after noon and you can ask her then.”
“And you don’t know who she is?” I persisted.
“I know nothing about her, and I don’t like it. But I could not move her from the temple, or get any explanation out of her. You’ll have to find out for yourself.”
He returned to his men, and I left the place; walking slowly, I deliberated about that strange situation. It was obvious that the whole affair had upset Palti, but I could not see why; he did not usually get upset easily. In my meditations, my legs took me almost automatically to the pasture, where I knew the shepherds kept the goats who were delivering their kids; the sight of the emergence of new life had always had the effect of deep happiness on me. As I watched the birth of twin kids, I forgot all about the mystery of the morning and the way it had affected my husband.
When it was over, I returned to the village and sat down at the entrance to our house, waiting for Palti to come for lunch, too excited to do any work. All that time I was reflecting about nothing, absorbing the sun’s warmth and the clear air, the quiet prevailing in the village and the people going about their business; nothing was left of the disturbance of the morning.
* * *
After lunch Palti and I went to the temple. The courtyard’s gate was never locked, nor was it now; there was no one in sight. At the center of the yard, by the platform, the altar stood and I noticed smoke circling up from a bunch of dry leaves on it, smelling strangely, different from the usual incense.
The door to the room was also unlocked — which was unusual; I was thinking that the maids were taking it easy that day. I opened it carefully, uncertain what I was going to find inside; but the picture before me was harmless enough. A figure was sitting in front of Ashtoret’s statue, all clad in black — as Tzilla had said. The maids, I thought, did not have the heart to lock the woman in. Palti, pausing behind me, said he would stay outside to wait for me to come out. “Call me if you need help,” he said simply.
I did not know why I should need help, but I did not protest. I entered the room. Rays of the westerly sun penetrated through the window, fell on the face of Ashtoret and lit it with shining gold. The woman sat cross-legged at the foot of the goddess, a black veil covering her face; on her shoulder stood a great grey owl, hooting softly.
“Mikhal — Mikhal —” I heard a muted voice, not knowing whether it came from the woman or the bird. The air was heavy in spite of the open window and the clear day outside. I breathed hard, trying unsuccessfully to fill my lungs.
“Did you want to see me, Grandmother?” I asked. The nickname escaped my mouth involuntarily, although I could not estimate the age of the woman who was completely covered.
“Come, sit; bring your offering to the Goddess.”
I bent my head in front of Ashtoret, murmured a short prayer and sat on the bare floor opposite the woman.
“Who are you?” I asked curiously, but with some trepidation in my heart.
She raised her veil. “Do you know me?”
I scrutinized her face, shivering at the look of it. It was a beautiful face, and an awe-inspiring one; its lines seemed carved in wood or stone; the eyes, almond-shaped, were half-hidden by long lashes. Her nose was hawklike, her lips full and lusty; but the woman’s mouth was twisted, the shapely eyes deep-set and dripping suffering, and deep grooves crisscrossed the sculptured face.
“No,” I replied with a trembling voice, “I don’t think I have ever seen you.”
She started chanting with a muted voice, telling her story: “I lived in the hills of Binyamin, I was in Ein Dor, now I am in Galim — but who knows what will the day bring?”
“The hills of Binyamin? Ein Dor? What do you mean?” I thought there might be some meaning to her words, but I did not know what it was.
“In the hills of Binyamin I lived at the Temple of the Three Asses. Don’t you remember me?”
“I don’t remember you, Grandmother.” I had to call her that, although I still could not estimate her age even after seeing her face.
“You came there with Sha’ul.”
“But I did not go into the cave, I saw none of the priestesses!” I cried. “How could I know you?”
“Your spirit was there, don’t you remember?”
I did not want to remember the terrible visions I saw there.
“But you must remember Lilit, don’t you?” she continued.
I turned my gaze to the bird, which bent its head as if in greeting. I could not let this go on. “So, you left the temple?” I asked, mustering courage.
“The temple has been closed.”
“Closed? I didn’t know that! Why, when?”
“After the death of Maakha. She expressed her wish to be buried in our place. But after she was gone, we were unable to stay in Binyamin. It was Maakha’s living spirit which had held us in place.”
“Where did the priestesses go when the temple was closed, then?”
“One went to Naama, one to Giv’on, and I found shelter at Ein Dor which is at the foot of the sacred mount of Tavor.”
* * *
Only years later I heard from my mother about the sacred mount of Tavor which was situated not far from her own village of Shunem. Some people claim that the mountain was named after the ancient priestess Devora, who had established the famous Oracle of Ein Dor at its foot. Tavor is one of the holiest places of Death and Resurrection sacred to Ashtoret, and according to legend, ancient sacred kings used to be buried inside the mount’s belly, to be born again of Mother Earth.
But I am wandering again. “What are you doing here, then?” I asked the prophetess, wondering.
“I’ve come to bring you tidings,” she said, her dim voice quivering, shaking my whole being.
“Tidings of what?” I asked weakly, suddenly frightened.
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar